Musings from Abroad

Connor Guy

I’ve always held back a little from Whitman’s beloved pastime of trying as hard as we can to find moral fault in our own actions and attitudes.

Each year I’ve been here has seen a new “scandal”: Blackface in 2006-07, the Pioneer’s 2008 April fools issue and just this year, the French house’s “Morocco” café night. Although I think that some of these incidents are more deserving of the attention that was brought to them than others, one observance can be fairly drawn from the collective experience: we certainly have abundant opportunities to air our concerned voices on campus, and we often find particular satisfaction in doing so

When our attention to insensitivity becomes more about this satisfaction than the issues themselves, I get kind of annoyed. It seems sometimes as though the act of getting up on one of our many campus soapboxes (e.g. the Pioneer Op-Ed page, listservs, Symposiums, etc.) and professing one’s moral indignation has become more important than actually working to solve problems of ignorance or apathy on campus.

Worse yet, this kind of criticism can instill a paralyzing fear in students when they become so afraid of their own actions’ potential to offend that they find it difficult to take any action at all. Consider the French House’s Morocco café night, for example; they tried to educate the campus about another culture, and they ended up becoming the focus of a huge ordeal that was (unfairly) compared to Blackface. If I were the French house, this would be cause enough for me to never try such an event again.

But as much as I resent this vigorous and self-righteous moral scrutiny that I face when I walk to class or eat lunch at Whitman, it has done me some good. It is precisely this invisible social pressure that has molded (or maybe shamed) me into being a less ignorant, more respectful person, and I’m finding these days that I’m actually grateful.

I’m studying abroad in Paris right now, and at the risk of sounding whiny, arrogant and hypocritical, I’ll go ahead and say that many of the kids who decide to study abroad here with a cushy program like IES have not had the kind of experiences that I’ve outlined above. Before I go any further though, let me emphasize the qualifiers I’m using here: not all, or even most of my peers are like this.

The ones I am talking about, though, have been driving me up the wall since I got here, and I was recently making a particularly concentrated effort to figure out exactly why this is when it hit me. It’s not because a lot of them are dumb as rocks. I thought that was the case for a long while, but it’s not. It’s not even because some of them really enjoy putting on a pretentious, but equally superficial “academic” face: (e.g. “I LOVE art history! Especially the Mona Lisa. You know, I think I’m going to be a museum curator after I’m handed a graduate degree from a prestigious institution”).

It’s not exactly because they’re filthy rich and love to flaunt it, although this is getting warmer. There are kids with just as much money at Whitman, I’m sure, yet somehow they don’t provoke the kind of frustration that these kids do.

I think the real problem is that most of them have never had their privileged, upper-class assumptions and lifestyles challenged. I don’t think it’s entirely unfair to say that they would be surprised to find that not all college students can afford fancy digital SLR cameras, spur-of-the-moment weekend getaways and designer clothes like they can. I don’t know if it’s because their schools don’t teach them this, or because within those schools they never talk to people less well off than they are, but these kids seem to never have reflected on their privileged position in society.

In short, these students have reignited my hope for and my pride in the Whitman community, which has seemed to me, at certain points, to be surprisingly ignorant and overly self-conscious at once. They have reminded me that, in the grand scheme of things, we do a pretty good job of informing ourselves and fighting ignorance. And to those of you who, like me, have become somewhat perturbed with our seemingly fussy and paralyzing habit of self-criticism: I’d be happy to introduce you to some of these kids, if you’d like to consider the alternative.